When your fly is there, be aware!

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Situational awareness may be the most important thing in fly fishing.

Stay on Your Toes Photo by Louis Cahill

I’ve touched on this before but it occurs to me that the subject needs more attention.

Quite possibly the most important thing in fly fishing is situational awareness. That is, knowing what your fly is doing in relation to it’s surroundings. Surroundings like current, structure, light, the boat and most importantly, the fish. Trout fishermen are accustomed to thinking about the drift of a dry fly but less at ease with the idea of a nymph’s drift, for example. Lots of guys fish streamers with a simple swing down and across, without considering how the baitfish they are imitating would negotiate the currents, eddies and structure along the way. This idea exists in every type of fly fishing but is never more crucial than in salt water so let’s look at that in more depth.

Right from the first false cast you should be thinking about the environment in which the fish exist. An experienced angler knows that a flat is less like a pond and more like a river. Except for brief periods of tide change the water on the flats is always moving. Like a winding meadow stream it finds it’s way through a maze of channels. Unlike a river those currents are constantly changing direction and speed. Those changes affect how your fly behaves in the water and that determines the strategy of your presentation. It’s key when flats fishing that you always know which way the water is moving and how fast. How quickly will your fly be carried to the fish and from which direction? How fast will it sink? Where will the fish first see it? Which direction will the fly be moving and how fast? You need to know the answer to all of these questions before you cast.

Current also effects your retrieve. The fish is not interested in how the line moves through the guides, but how the fly moves through the water. If the current is carrying the fly away from you, that retrieve has to slow way down. No fish is going to chase a shrimp that can swim thirty miles per hour. If, for example, the current is carrying your fly toward you, your retrieve must be brisk or you’re just dead drifting. Worse, you’re creating slack that will prevent getting a hook set or even prevent you from knowing when the fish has eaten. While we’re on the subject of the all-important hook set, don’t forget that the current is carrying the fish too. Unlike a trout, who must turn and run back to his holding zone as soon as he eats your fly, a salty fish moving with the current will likely eat your fly and keep coasting your direction creating slack that must be taken up quickly to hook up. It’s best to see that one coming before the fish eats.

The most common mistake made in salt water is allowing slack in the line. The importance of a positive connection to the fly can not be overstated. This often goes wrong right from the start. The life of a shrimp, crab or baitfish on the flats is not a lazy one. These little guys have to keep moving in order to avoid unwanted attention. You don’t want the fish to see your fly just “hanging out” and then suddenly take off. When the fish sees your fly for the first time it should be moving in a natural manner. That’s what he expects to see, so give it to him. Before your fly hits the water you should be taking up slack, dropping the rod tip to the water and you should already know what kind of a retrieve is needed. It’s a lot to think about but it pays off. Days on the flats are measured in numbers of shots, you can’t afford to waste them.

Current isn’t the only thing moving. The fish usually are, of course, but if you’re on a boat so are you. A good guide will do his best to position you to make your best cast and stop the boat for you, taking that variable out of the equation. However, it’s not always possible. Wind and current can make it impossible to stop a boat. What’s more, shots can come up quickly and sometimes there’s just no time. You’ve got to go with what you’ve got. There’s no time to be figuring out what the current is doing. You have to keep up with it and know before you go. If the boat’s moving too, you have to adapt. If you’re moving to the fish, strip fast, the boat is making slack. If you’re moving away, slow it down. Stay sharp. It’s easy to fall asleep on the bow on a beautiful day. You can nap while your buddy fishes.

One of the most overlooked variables is light. To eat a fly, the fish must see a fly and that’s all about the light. Where light is concerned the key is putting yourself in the fish’s shoes. Ask yourself, what is he looking at? I was trout fishing with my Godson one evening just after sunset and he asked me, “how can the fish even see the fly when it’s this dark”? I pointed up to the glowing blue twilight sky and asked, “can you see those swallows flying above you”? Remember, the fish is not looking down at the water. When you are poling along a flat with the sun at your back and you get a shot at a fish who is facing you, he is squinting into the sun. You have to drop that fly much closer to him if you want him to see it. If you are squinting into the sun, he has a great view. Lead him plenty. If it’s an overcast day or the sun is low on the horizon, the fish is holding all the cards. Go slow and careful.

Without good situational awareness you can’t have a good strategy, and without a good strategy you may as well fish a worm and a bobber. Knowing the conditions in the fish’s world will make for success no matter what kind of fishing you doing. Try to keep a few simple things in mind.

What is the current doing? Know before you go.

How is my fly behaving? Keep a positive connection.

What does the fish see? Put yourself in his shoes.

There are a lot of variables but that’s most of it. Keep this stuff in mind and pretty soon you’ll find you’re looking at your fishing from a whole new perspective. The fish’s!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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